Changing bin Laden’s Poison into Medicine

Mahayana Buddhism posits an intermediate state of being, a period of time in-between death and rebirth. Its length differs by tradition, but commonly prayers and thoughts of loving-kindness are sent to the deceased who linger in that ku (empty) or bardo (transitional) state. You may not accept this notion, but that should not prevent you from sending Osama bin Laden your prayers and thoughts of loving-kindness.

As a way of developing abundant compassion, prayers for a monster can be very powerful, for you. When we practice loving-kindness meditation, one of the four types of persons we develop compassion toward is a “hostile” person. Someone with whom we are at odds , have difficulties about, who provokes our anger – bin Laden is certainly in that category. Sometimes practicing compassion should be a real challenge.

I saw a number of posts online yesterday that were a “Buddhist response” to bin Laden’s killing. This, I think, is an appropriate Buddhist response.

I also saw posts throughout the blogosphere that questioned the response of others, particularly those of the crowds in front of the White House and at Ground Zero Sunday night. My reaction was similar at first. I believe that life is precious, sacred. I believe that the murder of a murderer is still murder, whether carried out in an execution chamber or “in the field.” I believe it is inappropriate to rejoice at the death of another human being, no matter what that person may have done. What I saw reminded me of the rejoicing after the execution of Timothy McVeigh. That was not justice. It was vengeance.

However the more I watched the crowds Sunday, the more felt that this wasn’t self-righteousness or vengeance masquerading as justice, but rather a pure sense of joyfulness, the kind of feeling you would have after going through a long, arduous struggle and then suddenly realizing that you made it in one piece.

I also noticed that the rejoicing crowds were young. Just kids on 9/11. They grew up with the specter of terrorism hovering above their heads. Everyone has felt it. 9/11 changed the lives of nearly every person on this planet. The threat terrorism poses has made us paranoid, fearful, weary.

Last night, Thomas Friedman of NY Times said on CNN:

You know, our day is not September 11. Our day is the Fourth of July . . . I mean, we’re not the people who are exporting fear. You know, we’re the people about hope, freedom, opportunity. And we need to get back to that. I think President Obama has done a good job of getting us back to that in many ways.

But this idea as I say that everything is about national security and homeland security and these huge bureaucracies that have been created. Are they here forever? Is this it? Are we taking off our shoes and our belts and our clothes forever? At what point do we say, “You know what? We’ve got to accept a little more insecurity in our life so we can — we can live like Americans again.”

False or not, in the last two days many people have felt a renewed sense of security. They’ve grasped onto a little piece of hope that they are closer to living like Americans again. It’s produced feelings of joy and gratitude. Personally, I don’t feel like begrudging them that.

We should remember that as part of loving-kindness practice, we try to cultivate four qualities of love: friendliness (metta), compassion (karuna), appreciative joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). Those are the qualities I saw in the crowds Sunday night. As an example, consider equanimity in the way it is described by Gil Fronsdal, a teacher for the Insight Meditation Center:

While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.

I suspect that the people in those crowds were not actually rejoicing at a human being’s death, so much as they were celebrating a moment of hope, experiencing some long-sought closure. For the first time in a long while, many people feel that they don’t have to strain their eyes so hard in order to catch a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

President Obama in the Situation Room monitoring the operation in real time

At first I questioned President Obama’s statements that justice had been done. That it was a good day for America. So what does justice mean here? In this case perhaps it’s a form of restorative justice in the sense that bin Laden’s death has helped to heal us, helped to make us a bit more whole.

One of the doctrines that Buddhism teaches is hendoku-iyaku or “changing poison into medicine.” 9/11 shocked and traumatized the world and I think there is no question than that bin Laden was the mastermind of that plot. If his death then contributes something positive to the world, even for a short time – if his poison becomes medicine that helps to heal the world – then isn’t that a good thing?

This event is an opportunity to cultivate the qualities that have been mentioned here. Sometimes great good comes in response to great evil, but it is up to us to make it happen.

I think it is also important to keep in mind that karma means action, and as a teacher once told me years ago, all karma is volitional. Whether you accept the doctrine of karma or doubt it, it remains a fact that people often choose their own fate. It has nothing to do with any sort of divine retribution. No one who sets out to be a terrorist can expect to live a long life. Therefore, the person most responsible for Osama bin Laden’s violent death was the man himself. He created his own karma, just as you and I do. Just remember that bodhisattvas vow to have compassion for all people, including those who bring suffering down upon others.

There has been a lot of rejoicing in the world as of late. The uprising in Egypt was a somewhat joyful revolution. In protesting against their country’s leadership, the people of Egypt also managed to celebrate their own sense of who they are. Over the weekend, Britons celebrated something I considered silly and trivial. They made a big production out of a simple wedding ceremony. But now I feel that I should have been happy for them, glad that they found some joy, and I am glad that a day or two later, many other people found some joy, too, and some hope. Hope and joy are often in short supply.

In his poem, “Letter from Li Po”, Conrad Aiken wrote:

Song with the wind will change, but is still song
and pierces to the rightness in the wrong
or makes the wrong a rightness, a delight.

Finally, I don’t see this as “an eye for an eye” kind of thing. Not with this president. I don’t believe President Obama is a man who would cavalierly make a decision that might result in the death of any living being or give in to feelings of revenge. I suspect he weighed the moral questions. Carefully. I can trust a guy like that.

It’s not for me to tell you who to send loving-kindness to, or how to view justice, and I’m certainly not trying to make an excuse for killing. I’m just saying . . . that Buddhism offers us some different ways to view this event . . . and maybe President Obama was right . . . maybe justice was done. Maybe it was a good day for America.


2 thoughts on “Changing bin Laden’s Poison into Medicine

    1. Thanks, Adam. It’s definitely not a black and white thing. I think we all have mixed feelings. I know I do. For instance, I was disturbed to learn that bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed. For some reason that bothers me. I have always thought that being a good guy in the American sense meant giving even the bad guys a fair shake. Maybe that comes from growing up watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies.

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